Self-driving trucks should make the roads safer, cutting down on some of the 3,000 annual truck accident deaths, and the new vehicles could also help the environment by reducing pollution.

Daimler's autonomous trucks will drive much more efficiently than their human-driven counterparts, which could help slash the volume of black smoke being pumped into the air by our nation's haulage fleet.

Daimler's Freightliner Inspiration Truck that has been testing on Nevada roads since May is the first to be tested on public roads. A Mercedes model using the same system already clocked up 10,000 autonomous hours on a test circuit in Germany in 2014 but has only driven on closed autobahns to date. Neither truck is actually driverless. Unlike Google's cars they can't navigate city streets. A driver is still needed to get them to and from the highway, so the drivers needn't fear for their jobs just yet.

The trucks have a highway pilot similar to an airplane's autopilot - the system itself detects when it is safe to take over and the driver flicks a switch and relinquishes control to the machine.

The system stays in one lane at a steady speed, uses the road markings to steer around curves and automatically adjusts speed to traffic if it senses a vehicle in front. It won't leave the lane, though, so the driver will need to do any overtaking required and also take the controls in bad weather. The army of sensors mounted on the truck includes front radar that can see more than 800 feet down the road to detect any potential obstacles.

As with an airliner, the driver still monitors the system, but he can relax, read a book, watch a game or catch up on some paperwork whilst sitting in the driver's seat. "It is incorrect to refer to a ve­hicle in autonomous mode as a driverless truck," Daimler said in a statement. "Drivers remain the boss in their vehicle because the technology ... requires the presence of a qualified truck driver with valid commercial driver's license in the cab and on the gauges."

The system is designed to operate at maximum fuel efficiency and is estimated to cut fuel consumption by 5 percent. Other green technologies are likely to have more of an environmental impact (already fuel efficiency standards, some still proposed, hope to cut emissions by 40 percent), but every little bit helps.

The trucks could have a more valuable impact on safety. Roughly one in 10 (3,602 in 2013) highway deaths occurs in a crash involving a large truck, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation statistics. This number has actually been on the increase in the last few years and driver fatigue is a contributor in some cases. However, it's generally not the truck drivers who get killed (67 percent were passengers in other vehicles, and 15 percent were pedestrians, motorcyclists or bicyclists) and many of these accidents are caused by a third party. So just like Google's cars, these safer trucks will likely still be involved in accidents.

The real benefit could come for haulage companies when the technology improves enough to completely replace the driver, but that's still a long way off. Despite the flashy launch at Hoover Dam last month, the current technology is only in testing and is still several years away from being officially released. Current trucking regulations would also need to be overhauled to allow for the self-driving machines and any such move is likely to meet resistance from driver unions.

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